Speaking from a cramped and makeshift office, a top Nigerian civil servant says his minister, Udoma Udo Udoma, has spent much of the fortnight since his appointment in meetings trying to work out his team’s remit.
Udoma’s new Ministry of Budget and National Planning reduces the power of the finance ministry – previously responsible for allocating spending – and, the civil servant says, will “help ministries to synergise”.
Since President Muhammadu Buhari took office on May 29, and in the months of campaigning beforehand, projects – including roads and other infrastructure initiatives – and foreign aid have been put on hold in the absence of a cabinet.
Critics say that the power vacuum has exacerbated an economic crisis caused by plunging oil prices.
And even though the former military ruler swore in his cabinet on Nov. 11, work may not get under way until early next year as Nigeria comes to a halt for a Christmas break in mid-December.
Meanwhile, the 36 ministers need to pin down what their roles are after Buhari cut the number of federal ministries from 29, under his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, to 24 and named 17 new top civil servants as part of plans to end decades of mismanagement and corruption.
With oil prices unlikely to pick up any time soon, Kemi Adeosun, a former investment banker and now finance minister, is charged with the biggest challenge – reviving the economy in Africa’s top oil producer.
A senior civil servant said Adeosun also spent much of her time in meetings since being sworn in. Hers were with the African Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Diplomats were glad to finally have a finance minister to meet.
She was so busy that she struggled to find time for her official photograph to be taken.
“We’re all criss-crossing,” said Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh of himself and fellow cabinet members who have visited each other to discuss where their remits overlap.
“We’re talking. Nobody can do it alone,” he said.
NO BUDGET YET
Under Buhari’s plan, the 2016 budget – the key to unlocking spending – is now the responsibility of Udoma’s new ministry, where cardboard boxes containing computer equipment are still piled high in the reception area.
The government has not even completed the first step towards compiling the budget – a medium-term expenditure framework covering three years – that is usually submitted by August or September. That is then approved by parliament at which point government starts working on the following year’s budget.
Parliament usually sees the budget before the Christmas holiday but a proposal for 2016 is yet to emerge and discussions are likely to take longer than usual with public finances so eroded.
A document from Vice President Yemi Osinbajo seen by Reuters proposed a budget of 7-8 trillion naira ($35-$40 billion), up from 4.4 trillion this year, but diplomats have been wondering where the money will come from as revenues have collapsed or whether government bodies hitherto not included in the core budget will be added.
Clement Nwankwo, director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, an Abuja-based think-tank, said ministers would make little impact until a budget was in place.
“The mood has dampened,” he said, describing a lull after the much-anticipated cabinet news. “Expect the cabinet to really start work around late January,” he said.